Mont Blanc Massif

Climbs described:

Mont Blanc du Tacul: North Face Triangle; Contamine/Mazeaud route

Mont Blanc du Tacul: Albinoni/Gabarrou Couloir

Guidebook references to these climbs:

Mont Blanc Massif: Selected Climbs (2 volumes) Lindsay Griffin

Contamine/Mazeaud route Vol I pg. 118

Albinoni/Gabarrou route Vol I pg. 116

Ski tours described:

Valle Blanche (l'envers du plan route)

Amethystes glacier to the col de Tour Noir

Chamonix April, 2000

In April, 2000 I was off to Chamonix again. I would have preferred to go in the Summer or early Fall, as I had on my previous trips, but Dorothy was due to have a baby in July, so it was Spring-time or never. I was unsure what weather and general climbing conditions would be like in early April, so I packed my ski equipment in addition to all my normal alpine climbing gear.

I arrived in Chamonix Monday evening, April 3rd. It was raining and foggy. I gave Franco, my guide, a phone call, and he confirmed that the weather was a bit too unsettled to do much of anything. The weather was bad for the next two days, with rain in the valley, and snow in the mountains. I walked around Chamonix, checking out the shops, and spent a lot of time sleeping. I also spent a day skiing at the Grande Montets ski resort.

Finally, on Thursday, the weather cleared and I could finally get out into the high mountains. Franco and I were going to ski the Valle Blanche, and we caught the first cable car up to the top of the Aguille du Midi Thursday morning. When we got to the top, our first good sign was about a foot of fresh, light powder snow piled on top of the railing along the walkway between the tram station and the exit tunnel. Franco grabbed a hand-full, blew on it at watched the powder fly off into the cold air. "We have good snow, I think." he said. We hurried out of the exit tunnel, wading through deep snow down the narrow path to the flat col below the tram station. We clicked into our skis, and Franco headed down, with me behind him. The snow was knee deep, fresh, and light. It was amazing, and we were getting first tracks!

Franco headed over a rise and disappeared over the other side. I stopped at the top and peered down the steep slope, but the deep snow gave me courage and I launched myself down. In the deep powder, it was actually much easier to ski on the steeper terrain, and I was having a really good time, knee deep in fresh powder and surrounded by beautiful mountain scenery.

After more steep skiing, interspersed with mellow flat sections, weaving in and out of seracs, we reached the Requin hut, where we stopped for a drink and a rest. Then, it was more skiing, as we made our way down the Mer de Glace glacier.

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As we descended, the snow quality became less ideal, heavier and more tracked out. The scenery was great, however, with beautiful views of the Grand Charmoz and other beautiful peaks. After a long, flat section, we reached the telepherique to the Montvenors train station. We took the cable car to Montvenors, then caught the train back down to Chamonix. It was a great day of skiing, one of the best I've ever had. Even better, the weather for the next few days was supposed to improve, so I would have a chance to do a bit of climbing.

The next morning, Franco and I were on the nine o-clock cable car up to the Aiguille du Midi. Our goal was the North Face of the Triangle of Mont Blanc du Tacul. The route was the Contamine/Mazeaud route, which takes the ice up the center of the face. We skied down from the Aiguille du Midi and over to the base of the Triangle. The Triangle was familiar to me, as I had already climbed the Chere couloir on its right side last fall.

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This time, the route we were taking went up the center of the North face. We stashed our skis and extra gear at the base of the route, and started up the North Face. We crossed the rimaye, and began front pointing up the ice of the face. The angle was not too steep, and the ice was good, solid and plastic. I was able to get excellent sticks with my axes and crampons.

At about mid height, where the face steepened, we began getting hit with large spin-drift avalanches. Some of them would last for a minute or more. When they would hit me, I would hunker down and just hold on. At times, the snow would be coming down on me so hard that the air would thicken with snow crystals, making it hard to inhale. There was one point in particular where our route seemed to follow a natural funnel for the spindrift, and I kept getting pummeled with snow. Finally, I had to just climb through it rather than wait for it to subside. It wasn't really scary, but it did add a feeling of adventure to an otherwise casual climb.

When we reached the top of the Triangle, we traversed, downclimbed, and rappelled over to the top of the Chere Couloir, then we rapped down the Couloir on fixed anchors to the base of the Triangle. We then skinned up, put on our skis, and skied up to the Cosmiques hut on the shoulder of the Aiguille du Midi.

Dinner at the Cosmiques hut was good, as always. There were only about 10 people staying at the hut. Among them were a guide and his client who had attempted the Albinoni/Gabarrou couloir on Mont Blanc du Tacul. They said that the climb was not in condition and they had retreated off of it about mid height. They said that the lower portion of the route had deep snow, and the upper portion had thin ice. This was of great interest to Franco and I, as we were planning an ascent of that route the next day. In spite of their warnings about the route, Franco and I decided that we would go ahead with our plans to climb it.

The next morning, we awoke at dawn, and skied over to the Albinoni/Gabarrou couloir in the early morning light. We stashed our skis at the base of the couloir, and began our ascent. The snow on the lower section was waist deep and soft, and upward movement was very strenuous and inefficient. I would take a step up, and slide back a step. We wallowed upward for a couple hundred meters, until the couloir finally narrowed and steepened, and the deep snow was replaced with steep ice and rock.

Once established in the narrow couloir, the climbing was steep and fun, and became more interesting the higher we climbed. Some pitches had sections of very thin ice, but a little hooking and careful tool placements were always sufficient to get past these onto more substantial ice.

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The crux was near the top of the route; a steep mixed section with thin ice, rock, and some thin ice pillars. I'd never seen Franco place more than two or three pieces of protection on any ice pitch previous to this one, but on this, he put in five or six pieces. About mid way up the crux, Franco knocked down one of the ice pillars. He didn't fall, but the pillar broke up and rained down big ice chunks on me while I cowered below, trying to squeeze up against the rock wall of the couloir. One of the pieces of ice hit me right on the elbow of my right arm with a substantial amount of force. The pain was enough that I became a bit dizzy, and felt like I might throw up. My arm was ok though, the bone and joint were fine, and I was able to follow the pitch, although my arm alternated between throbbing and numbness for a while.

We finally topped out on the route, and then rappelled down to our skis which were stashed at the base of the couloir. We got into our skis and skied down the regular route on the Valle Blanche. It was early afternoon and the sun was hot. The snow was heavy and cut up and not very much fun to ski, particularly because I was already a bit tired from my long climbing day. I was glad when we finally reached the bottom of the valley and took the train down to Chamonix.

The weather was very unsettled, and bad weather was predicted for the rest of the week. We had hoped to do some climbing on the Argentierre side, but the nasty weather was making that impossible. Instead, after a day of rest, we decided to take a ski tour up the Argentierre and Amethyste glaciers to the Col du Tour Noir on the border between France and Switzerland. Monday morning, we headed up the first tram to the top of the Grand Montets above Argentierre. We skied down below the North Faces of the Verte, Droites, and Courtes, then up the Amethyste glacier. The ascent was long and sweaty, and I was glad of the tall heel plugs on my ski bindings. The scenery was amazing, however, and we had great views of the North Face of the Argentierre wall, the Triolet, Mount Dolent, and the Minarette, which I had climbed last Fall.

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After several hours of climbing, we finally reached the top of the col. From the top, we could see into Switzerland, with the Dent Blanche and Matterhorn in the distance. We relaxed for a while and ate lunch, which we shared with a pair of friendly choucas (black birds). Then it was time to descend. The skiing wasn't so great near the top of the col, as the snow was mostly breakable crust and slab, but as we got lower, we encountered perfect spring corn snow. We wove our way between rocks and crevasses, having a great time. It took only a few minutes to descend what it had taken several hours to climb. We skiied down the Argentierre glacier until it reached the Grand Montets ski resort, and then headed down the ski runs to our car down below.

The weather the next few days was awful, with lots of snow, wind and rain, so the rest of my trip was confined to the valley. I finally had to leave Chamonix, and head back to the United States. The weather had not been the greatest, but I had managed to squeeze in a couple days of climbing and a couple days of skiing, so I was happy.